Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Holiness and the Spiral Dance of the Liturgy

Over at Haligweorc, Derek Olsen poses some interesting questions. He writes, "In the Hebrew Bible, worship is intimately related to encountering the holiness of God and its potentially lethal consequences. Not only can worshiping the wrong way (Numbers 16) or wearing the wrong clothes at worship (Exodus 28:1-43) get you killed, merely touching holy things even for a good purpose can get you killed too (2 Samuel 6:6-7)."

"The biblical text contains a strong sense of holiness as a tangible power—a potentially deadly power. As has been written here before, early medieval Christianity also nurtured a strong sense of holiness as tangible power no doubt drawn from these biblical texts."

Olsen asks these questions:

"What do we do with it? I think most often we dismiss these narratives and write them off as either 1) primitive perspectives reflecting a view of God we don’t believe in any more, or 2) manipulative texts written by a privileged group who use tales of divine punishment as a means of bolstering their own hegemony."

"Are those the only two options? Should we expect more from our encounters with holiness?"

I think these are good questions. My response is that 1) and 2) are not the only two options. Nor do I think they are particularly good ones. As Derek implies we should expect something more from encounters with holiness than I suspect we typically do. But just what should we expect from such an encounter?

I don't know. And that is why it is so unnerving. Among other things, God's holiness is about the otherness of the divine. It is an otherness that confounds all our efforts to make God useful for our personal or public agendas. It is an otherness that confounds our every presumption. It is an otherness that also confounds our tendency to create domesticated idols of God. As C. S. Lewis famously wrote of Aslan, God is good, but not tame. In fact it is the absolute goodness of God that is another wild, unpredictable, unnerving aspect of God's holiness. What I do expect from ecountering the holiness of God is transformation. Indeed, only transformation will make any of us able to bear it.

Whatever we make of the passages from the Old Testament referenced above, they remind us that God is not our heavenly buddy. Nor is God a warm, fuzzy, spiritual affirmation of our perceptions of our own inherent swellness. When we encounter the holiness of God we encounter an awe-full Power, Goodness, and Beauty. Over and over again in the biblical record those who encounter it respond with fear. We do well not to take it lightly.

And it is not only about being sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our sinfulness does make us unable to bear the presence of the Good. But, also, fragile as we are, we cannot endure the presence of the Power. And, weak as we are, the glory and splendor of the Beauty is unbearable. I suspect that even without the problem of sin, we would have to be transfigured just to bear the Beauty of God. I think Dante is onto something in the Paradiso. Beatrice, now among the blessed, has been transformed and "transhumanized" by grace and incorporated into the presence of God. She has been "inGodded". Because she now has taken on some of the glory, she withholds her smile from Dante because the sheer, awesome beauty and joy of it would burn him to a heap of ashes. But Beatrice also represents the promise that we too can be transfigured to bear and enjoy the holy presence of God.

To be sure, as the author of Hebrews assures us, in Jesus we have a High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, and one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. So, we can with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16). But the same author also warns, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31) and says, "let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Here is something I have posted before about how the liturgy recognizes this:

It is sometimes suggested that since the Eucharistic table is God’s table it is not for us to decide who can participate. But, given the logic of the liturgy, one might more reasonably suggest, that because it is God’s table, we should not be glib in our own participation nor in inviting others to participate. Indeed, one might wonder if an open invitation is not more presumptuous in its certainty of our own adequate knowledge and goodness, or at the very least, that it presumes a particularly cheap grace. It suggests a notion of God that is altogether domesticated and sentimental.

Annie Dillard famously warns against presuming that God is tame:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
- Teaching a Stone to Talk

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming to the Lord’s Table. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically, as we move through the Eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The One into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware that in our ignorance, we are like children playing with nitroglycerine. We are also aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God. The Exhortation found before the Rite of Holy Communion found in the Book of Common Prayer warns against coming to the Eucharistic table unprepared.

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar drawing closer and closer to the great mystery of the Eucharist. At intervals along this spiral dance, we stop to "take off our sandals" and acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness. And we ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of out hearts that we may perfectly love God and worthily magnify his holy Name. And we dance a little closer. Then we sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion; each of which asks again for God’s mercy. And we dance a little closer. After hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor and receive the promise of God’s forgiveness. We exchange the peace, recognizing that we cannot go to the altar of the Prince of Peace unless we are being and making peace. And we dance a little closer. In the Sanctus we declare that we know that the one in whose presence we are is holy. And we dance a little closer. Before the breaking of the bread, we say the Lord’s Prayer in which we again ask for forgiveness. And we dance a little closer. Again and again, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of mercy. By God’s amazing grace we are invited and encouraged to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). But that confidence is born in baptism and is not the same as presumption. Our liturgy reminds us that we are all always in need of mercy if we are to gather in the Presence.

As "stewards of the mysteries of God" 1 Corinthians 4:1), it is indeed the Church's vocation to see that those who come to those mysteries are sufficiently aware of what they are doing and assure that they are prepared through initiation into those mysteries via baptism.


AKMA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AKMA said...

Your reflections remind me how often it has seemed as though leaders in the church adopt mutually-antithetical (or 'paradoxical') positions — as when (for example) 'baptismal theology' serves as the universal solvent for theological problems, except when communion without baptism relativises the importance of baptism.

Matt Gunter said...

Yes, AKMA, it seems we lack a willingness to be rigorous and thorough in our theology or to take seriously the theology we already have.